An early draft of this review was originally published on December 31, 2023,
at Give Me Some Light on Substack, months before it appeared here.
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Few events on the movie calendar pique my interest like a new feature from Michael Mann. His films Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999) are among my all-time favorites, both of them powerful examples that style is substance. Mann remains uniquely focused on men who are obsessed with excellence in particular pursuits, and how each man’s obsession draws him into moral compromises that become his Achilles’ heel. His interest in the women who love these men, and the prices they pay for loving unreliable, obsessive geniuses? That varies from movie to movie.

In Michael Mann’s Ferrari, the race cars are vivid metaphors for the reckless engines of — yes, for lack of better words, I’ll say it — toxic masculinity. [Image from the Neon trailer.]

I felt some trepidation approaching this film. His feature films since 2006’s feature Colin Farrell/Jamie Foxx revival of Miami Vice has seemed less than inspired, almost like he was becoming more and more interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking and less and less interested in compelling, contemplative storytelling. 2009’s Public Enemies was engaging but unsatisfying, and Blackhat felt like B-grade Mann without any interesting variations.

What would Ferrari, a passion project he has been talking about for decades, be like? Would it feel like a sort of culmination to the master’s career, a symphonic peak of his distinct stylistic priorities and his thematic explorations?

The movie is here, and now we know. The answer is… “Not really.”

Ferrari is well worth seeing for Mann’s reliably stylish work, for viscerally thrilling races, for a couple of strong performances, for a startling supporting turn from a snow-white-haired Patrick Dempsey, and for a troubling tale of ethical compromise and consequences. At the same time, I’m not sure Mann is going far enough. It’s all too easy to come away seduced by the dazzle of the brand and the giant who drives it, despite the lies, the recklessness, and the arrogance on display.

Adam Driver plays Enzo Ferrari — a very tall American 40-year-old playing a stout Italian 60-something — during a short span of days in which he risks the survival of his world-renowned company by driving (sorry!) his race car drivers to win a highly competitive race in sleek, red, innovative new sports cars. As he gambles it all for victory, he tries to manage the increasing suspicions and dissatisfaction of his wife Laura (Penelope Cruz) as they continue to grieve the death of their only son, while also trying to sustain secrecy about a lover, Lina Lardy (Shailene Woodley), and their secret child Piero (Giuseppe Festinese).

Ferrari assembles a team to top the racing world. [Image from the Neon trailer.]

Clearly, there’s no shortage of trouble and tension, several stressful strands for Mann to twist into knots. Ferrari, which runs almost two and a half hours, flies by as Enzo zigzags from ruling over his drivers to arguing with his financial advisors to clashing with Laura to trying to reassure Lina and Piero. He tries to project calm and control, but those furrows in his brow deepen as if they might fracture his head. We can sense that his panic is not unlike that expressed by Adam Sandler’s Howard Ratner in the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems.

The highlight of the film is, of course, the racing, which is even more thrilling in speed, sight, and sound than the fighter-jet sequences of Top Gun: Maverick. Every time one of those Ferrari race cars revs its engine, and the whole theater resonates, I think about how it sounds like the motors are growling “Ferr-AR-i, Ferr-ARRRR-i.

But I admit some discontent with the excitement I find in these races. It’s a corrupt industry, one that plays fast and loose with human lives, and it represents a quest for glory that is compromised to the core. Yes, there is beauty in the art of designing the perfect automobile, and nobility in testing the limits of what we imagine humans are capable of. But at what cost? Are these endeavors overseen by someone who cares about his employees? Or is he throwing their lives out onto the racetrack like dice, playing the odds in the hopes of advancing his family name?

While Enzo’s cars are designed with a commitment to excellence and integrity, his private life is fractured by compromise — most dangerously, his mistress Lina (played by Shailene Woodley). [Image from the Neon trailer.]

And, in the film’s preachiest aspect — a lesson hammered home in the trailer — Enzo insists that two objects cannot share the same space at the same time. He’s talking about racing of course, but in his love life and in fatherhood he is challenging that very law. And there will be a grievous price for more than just himself to pay.

Teaching everyone an inevitable lesson, Ferrari gives us the worst car accident I have ever seen on a big screen. I’m not sure that’s anything for Mann to brag about, but there it is. I’d heard buzz about a bad onscreen accident, so I was bracing for it. I didn’t know the historical account or what to expect. I was not prepared. I physically recoiled and did not recover (even though the movie seemed to think we could all move on and get back to worrying about how Enzo was going to resolve his extramarital affair).

Meanwhile, Mann’s own gambles pay off fairly well here — chief among them being the casting of Driver. He’s too tall, yes. He’s too young, sure. His Italian accent is unpersuasive. And yet — this is a film full of extreme closeups, and Driver’s face is a perfect canvas for the conflict, the ferocity, and the seeming incomprehension of just how severely is tempting disaster. He commands our attention whenever he’s onscreen.

Adam Driver is so good at playing men with a drive to conquer whole worlds. But how many kinds of drivers will Adam Driver play? [Image from the Neon trailer.]

(And while we’re on the subject: Paterson, Ferrari … What will be the next movie in which Driver plays a driver in a vehicle-focused movie? And what kind of transportation will he conquer next?)

The “terrible joy” speech — the highlight of his performance and the ideal Oscar clip from this film — is such a concise expression of one of the foundational questions of Michael Mann’s filmography: Why are so many men driven (sorry) to sell their souls to achieve such shallow and worldly definitions of “success”? How are they able to rationalize and ultimately harden their hearts regarding the devastation they unleash on people around them? It’s a great callback to Heat.

Some have speculated that maybe this is a sort of self-portrait, that Ferrari’s drive is similar to Mann’s own drive. That doesn’t quite work for me: I don’t see Mann’s artistry leaving casualties in its wake. The film faces up to Ferrari’s depravity in ways that make me think Mann is a much wiser and more conscientious human being.

Enzo’s priorities put anyone in his orbit at risk. [Image from the Neon trailer.]

But having said that, I am still somewhat uncomfortable with this film. As vividly as it portrays the harm done by Ferrari’s arrogance and irresponsibility, I still think that audiences will come away even more enamored of the brand, and that some will likely come away thinking of Enzo as some kind of hero. (As Ryland Walker Knight posted on Letterboxd, “The spectacle of capitalism argument doesn’t add up in an estate sanctioned hagiography with a family business end card.”) Even though the film shocks us and sickens us with the bloody cost of “the game,” it is quick to redirect our attention from casualties treated as collateral damage to refocus us quickly on Enzo’s domestic drama.

Worse, Enzo’s an exemplar of the worst kind of masculinity — his word isn’t worth anything, he treats women as necessary complications, and his ego is his compass. (His mother is no help with any of this; she only values a woman who can provide her son with an heir.) Mann doesn’t directly condone Ferrari’s faults, but where does he leave this narrative? Are moviegoers more likely to come away reverent toward the brand that has given them such visceral, glamorous thrills? Or will they be sobered by the kind of hard-hearted arrogance that forged this corporation’s prestige?

Is my concern really about the movie? Or just the lack of discernment in so many moviegoers? I’m not exactly sure.

Just like the last time Driver played a driver, his character is married to a jealous brunette named Laura (Penelope Cruz). [Image from the Neon trailer.]

But I’m having second thoughts about one of my earlier claims. I’m going to take back my claim that Driver “commands” our attention in every scene. In making such a claim, I’m disrespecting Penelope Cruz, who reminds us that she is the supreme talent in this film, an actress at the peak of her powers, turning what is typically a thankless role (the jealous wife) into a memorable storm of strategic countermeasures. If I see Ferrari again — and I’m not sure I can stomach that car accident again — I’ll watch it above all for her. Here we have what may be a first in all of Mann’s filmography: a film about obsessive men in which a woman steals the show.

Still shaking from that glorious, exhilarating restoration of Stop Making Sense, I have to say that Ferrari ranks as only the second-best film I saw in 2023 about a thin man wearing a massive suit. And I have no trouble saying that, committing himself to creative collaboration and excellence that lifts people up instead of exalting himself, David Byrne wore it better.